At a public hackathon five years ago, Kevin and I created an app called VanTrash. My mom liked it so much, that she suggested I build a company around it.

Since ReCollect is now five years old, I should probably send her a card (she already has a lifetime supply of branded hoodies).

My mom knew that it was a good idea to start this company even though she didn’t know the full landscape of civic technology. But she was on to something.

In a previous life at Socialtext, I got to see how a technology transitions from consumer to small business to enterprise to government. I think we’re at a similar point with several trends that have been taking hold in the private sector and are now impacting many government organizations.

Here are the 5 major technology trends that point at where the future is going:

Trend 1: Mobile App Trends for Cities

Apps. They’re only 9 years old, but we lean on them for *almost* everything!

Ok, if you want to get technical, we had apps before 9 years ago. But it was the Apple App Store that solved packaging and distributing them, and that all started 9 years ago.

What’s the app trend for civic tech? In the last while, there has been a debate in cities about the “one app that does it all” vs having a suite of focused apps. I think we are learning that successful apps:

  • Do one thing well, and

  • Work well together

The app strategy of the Big Companies like Facebook and Google and Microsoft is clear when you zoom out. They aren’t building all-in-one apps, for instance. In fact, they’re breaking apps they’ve found too big into smaller ones. Think of Facebook’s app, which has now become Facebook, FB messenger, FB pages, Instagram. The Apple camera app and the Karma app provide integrations to all of these. These apps all do one thing well, and they all work together.

And the Big Companies don’t seem to worry about having too many apps.

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So, how does this trend affect municipalities?

I think all-in-one apps are one of these things that seems like a good idea at first. You can imagine it – how cool it would be to have everything in one app? So it intuitively seems like a good idea.

A ton of cities we talk to are in the middle of deciding between A) one app that does everything they need and B) a handful of apps that each do specific things. Well, the trend in the app world strongly indicates only one direction: publish apps that do the one thing they need to do really, really well.

Trend 2: SaaS and Civic SaaS

Software as a Service is a delivery model that replaces large upfront investments with much smaller annual operating costs. It’s sweeping the “Business to Business” software world. For customers, it drastically lowers costs of technology development, upkeep, and management. This works in two ways: 1. Vendors need to continually work hard to earn their customer’s business. 2. Customers have much lower initial investments, so it’s easier to trial products.

More than anything, though, it is a massive trend. Salesforce has a sales software tool that companies subscribe to, and businesses by the thousands are moving their core business software out of their ‘legacy systems’ to use their SaaS product. Amazon Web Services host software “in the cloud” to companies like Netflix and thousands of other enterprises. That’s Amazon’s most profitable revenue stream now.

Businesses today stitch together dozens of SaaS products to run their business, and Civic Tech is bringing this opportunity / challenge to cities. In fact, most of the newer Civic Tech vendors are SaaS, and older vendors are often adopting SaaS models as well.


The iceberg analogy doesn’t work when costs decrease so significantly

SaaS is significant for one other reason: People who work in SaaS tend to look for underserved problems. In my observation, SaaS products often start with narrow, focused products that grow in depth over time. Because the costs are lower, problems that were not previously economic to solve can now be tackled and new solutions appear.

The more I learn about government organizations, the more underserved problems I see. Just like in the enterprise sector, there are hundreds of “micro apps” that can be built to help departments deliver better services. This focus on improved service delivery can help make government better for everyone. How do you make sure a visually impaired resident knows when to take out the trash, for instance? Software can help with this.

Trend 3: App Development Costs Plummet

It’s never been cheaper to build apps. All costs are dropping. Cloud infrastructure allows us to avoid capital investments in servers altogether – we can rent compute and storage capacity by the hour and gigabyte.

The Open Source tools that come out of large and small development shops alike let us stand on their shoulders. Operating systems, databases, frameworks, libraries – so much software is available for re-use. Teams can focus on the unique value they’re bringing to their organization instead of building messaging queues.

This means that small, lean teams can build amazing software systems. They can start small but still scale up to a global audience.

Because of these dropping costs, we see two effects in municipalities:

  • well staffed cities can build great experiences, and

  • vendors can create solutions that were not previously viable

Trend 4: Web & Mobile Matures

The early days of the web, with browser wars and incompatibility everywhere, are behind us. Today we have modern browsers running HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript, and so many rich applications. Javascript has grown up and huge numbers of developers are building massive amounts of code.

Mobile devices are now as fast as the desktop machines we had a few years ago, and are able to run rich web applications.

The Mobile App platforms have stabilized – Google and Apple won, and their platforms continue to slowly evolve. The App Stores are stable, and the tooling around the app stores continues to improve.

As both the web and mobile technologies have matured, developers have figured out how to richly integrate web-web, mobile-mobile and web-mobile. The hard parts of integrating apps are no longer technical – they are business and user experience problems now.

Trend 5: API Culture

In the old days, integrations between apps were big and hard. They took lots of resources, were risky, and took a lot of time.

Now in the API world, integrations are cheaper & easier. This is in part due to the technologies – today most API integrations are based around simple HTTP transports – and in part because we integrate more often – so each integration is easier. Savvy products act as a platform – so integrations are not a custom one-off thing – instead they use APIs shared across many integrations.

What does API culture really mean?  It means products that are designed with APIs as a first-class part of the product – not as an afterthought. It means:

  • ReSTful, HTTP APIs with helpful documentation

  • Open Standards such as Open311, GeoJSON and others

  • Going beyond inbound-only APIs to add Webhooks – linking systems together in real-time

APIs are the way that we stitch together the different SaaS apps that a modern business uses. They help us glue systems together.

APIs are crazy helpful. So helpful, that legacy products that originally didn’t have APIs are adding to their products. It’s cool that they’re doing this, because it helps move cities forward in a collaborative way. At the same time, web-native products are often now built “API First.” That means that rather than build the interface and then adding the API, we first build the application ON TOP of the API – often developing them in parallel.

Open Standards are a really fantastic way for municipalities to maintain leverage over their vendors – use of standards lowers the switching costs when moving between vendors.

So where do these trends take us? Exciting times! We’d love to hear your thoughts, and we have our own. Please email us to open the conversation.

Thanks for reading!



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